Dear President Obama:
I appreciated your Rosh HaShanah message to Jewish Americans last week, especially the line that read, “Let us resist prejudice, intolerance, and indifference in whatever forms they may take.” You declared that on this occasion, “We rededicate ourselves to the work of repairing this world.”
The time has come to translate these words into action. I want to draw your attention to a broken place in the body politic, one that needs your immediate attention.
Yesterday, I gave a talk to a meeting of independent artists. You may be surprised to learn how many of their questions were about you. I am writing to tell you that they are worried about your silence on artistic expression and civic discourse, now both under attack.
In predictable fashion, the people who want to tear down your administration are culling out the most vulnerable of your allies. When Van Jones was sacrificed, I tried to agree with my politically savvy friends who said you could not deflect attention from major issues like healthcare reform by coming to the defense of one controversial individual. While I don’t much like it, I understand political calculus, the need to pick one’s battles. But I worried then that any concession to scapegoating would inflame the attackers. Now that worry has been justified by subsequent events.
I wish I could say it was a surprise that your enemies next fixed their sights on artists and arts agencies like the National Endowment for the arts. But when the ideologues of the right want to bash a liberal administration, they almost always pick up the same club, the NEA, a minuscule federal agency with a budget amounting to a few cents per person. Why?
Whether through intuition or analysis, they understand that the way we craft our stories shapes our lives and collectively, our society. While (to my continuing frustration) Democrats and progressives tend to see artists as nice but unnecessary to real democracy, the right sees artists clearly, as in possession of powerful skills of expression and communication, almost always in the service of freedom, equity, diversity and inclusion. They understand that creativity and public purpose are a potent combination. They want their story—that this country belongs to white Americans who think as they do, and that their ownership confers the right to exclude, discredit and scapegoat others by any means necessary—to predominate, and so they are willing to do anything to disrupt the counter-narrative of art and public purpose.
One of the things I most admire about your statesmanship is your patient willingness to teach. I remember your “race speech” in Philadelphia the spring before the election, and the way you helped us understand the state of the economy and how we might respond a couple of weeks before the inauguration.
You have another such opportunity now, to speak out on freedom of expression and the erosion of civic dialogue by corporate-funded scapegoating. So far you have been conspicuously silent, or worse, your administration has issued directives that implicitly validate the charge that there is something wrong about engaging in conversation with constituents who want to pitch in and help with cultural recovery and national recovery.
We have ample experience in this country of the damage done to democracy when public officials allow themselves to be intimidated by demagogues, retreating to a silence that gives aid and comfort to those who oppose the universal exercise of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
We also know that in the face of smear campaigns, the words of one brave citizen can be enough to begin the process of toppling a demagogue. In 1954, in hearings Senator Joseph McCarthy called to investigate the Army, the Army’s lawyer Joseph Welch, looking directly at McCarthy, spoke a few short sentences that none of us should forget: “”Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness…. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
When the right words at the right time come from a President elected to represent what is best in our democracy, they will have even more power.
To repair the damage already done to democracy by ruthless media blowhards, you will need to explain that today, when whatever is said on television—lies and truth alike—spreads like wildfire, citizens must be more careful than ever to validate information before believing or circulating it. All of us have seen how much damage can be done when gossips spread falsehoods about an individual: in private life, people lose jobs, friends, reputations on account of lies. Here the stakes are even larger. When broadcasters have no respect for truth, when they will say anything just to drum up outrage, just to raise their ratings, it damages all of us. Freedom of expression is our most cherished right in this country; but we also have the freedom—and the duty—to examine what is expressed, rejecting irresponsible and self-serving smears wherever we find them.
The trouble is, some speech is more free than others. When a reckless broadcaster, using freedom of expression as a cover for a self-serving agenda, targets innocent individuals with smear tactics, he has an instant audience of millions. Millions more spread the message with video clips, blogs, and links. Fringe organizations follow the trail, scenting an opportunity to boost their own fundraising efforts by association with a smear campaign that has built-in national exposure. It takes tremendous effort for the rest of us to counter this kind of clout. A TV demagogue with no sense of decency can poison democratic discourse overnight—unless we, as individuals and community members, administer the antidote, speaking out at every opportunity to correct the record and condemn this cynical, pernicious irresponsibility.
President Obama, please reverse this trend before it goes any further by taking culture as seriously as it deserves, as seriously as the right takes it. Racism is clearly one animating force behind this new round of scapegoating; another is the invidious prejudice against artists as exemplars of freedom in action. In media blowhards’ arsenal, artists have been a weapon of choice for far too long. We are sadly used to seeing public officials surrender at the first shot across their bow, sacrificing free expression in the hope of preserving their own positions. In the late 80s and early 90s, the NEA responded to smears by abandoning the programs that had been targeted. New NEA Chair Rocco Landesman seems to be following that tradition by dissociating himself from all controversy.
Unless you speak out, the pattern of intimidation and capitulation will continue. Advocates of democratic liberty should not be defensive here; our role is to proudly assert our sustaining freedoms. It is time for a freedom of expression speech on the scale of your race and economy speeches. Instead of throwing artists under the bus, as so many have done before you, honor artists’ roles in bringing beauty and meaning to our lives, in helping us craft the stories that shape our communities, in mending our social fabric, promoting freedom of expression and a vibrant, inclusive national dialogue, and cultivating the empathy and creativity necessary for sustainable national recovery.
Explain the need for full and open discourse on democracy’s urgent questions. Point out the damage done when lies and distortions are given control of the airwaves. Explain that real democracy requires inclusive public conversation, respecting diverse voices, and providing the proper tools for an open society. Speak out for democratic means of countering well-funded smears, including robust public media and universal Internet access.
Right now, your silence is deafening. Please don’t let more allies go down without a word from you. If you are as serious about world-repair as I hope you are, you will seize this moment to repair democracy before even greater damage is done.
All blessings that you—and all of us—may be sealed for a year of sweet freedom,